Saturday, December 2, 2017

Finding Our Way In the Circle


We have finally stowed the ear protectors, looking forward to an auditory break.  And a muscular one, for that matter.  Having put the chain saw through its paces the past couple of weeks, we have in more recent days been encouraging the chipper/shredder to flex its muscles — and ours.  And did I mention that it’s loud?  Once we had trimmed the cuttings and stacked them Goldilocks-style into “shredding” (the little stuff), “chipping” (the medium stuff) and “burning” (the big stuff), we pulled the starter rope, affixed the eye and ear protectors as the 14-horse engine roared to life, and started feeding the beast. 

It turns out that there is a little more chainsawing to do, shortening a few of the larger limbs that had escaped notice to make them more suitable for the fire pit, but otherwise the piles are gone.  And it feels good — partly to have several of the trees in better trim, and partly just to have the project completed for a time and cleaned up.  But what feels especially good is having the limbs turned back around for their next contribution.  In the coming months, the wood chips will become mulch around the bushes and flowering trees in the meadow to help initially with moisture retention, and later, as the chips work their way into the soil, as organic matter rebuilding the soil to support the growth of new limbs that will eventually be pruned and chipped and mulched all over again.  It’s nature’s “right and left grand” around the circle of life before returning home.

And it’s one of the lessons we have been trying to practice from nature’s way of farming: that there is no such thing as waste.  The end-put of one process — trimmed and shredded branches, animal manure, egg shells, food scraps, etc. — becomes the valuable input of another.  “Waste”, as commonly understood, is less an indictment of the unappreciated material at hand than it is of my lack of understanding and underdeveloped imagination.  Waste is simply that which I haven’t yet discerned how to beneficially use.

But we keep learning and exploring and experimenting. The kitchen scraps that the chickens can’t eat we compost.  The grass clippings and leaves I once bagged and hauled away get the same composting treatment.  The straw bales — “waste” from someone else’s field — now stacked around and insulating the chicken coops will, come springtime after a winter of weathering and manuring, get spread over the potato beds among other things to protect and nourish a new season of growth.  And then become organic matter worked into the soil.

The circle of life.  Right and left grand.  

If only the idea would catch on in other parts of life.  

More appreciation than judgment.

More creativity than disposal.

Respectful welcome of the intrinsic possibilities, rather than dismissive rejection of the richness undiscerned.

Who knows how fruitful we might become?

We might even begin bowing not only to our partners, but to our corners as well; and dancing — promenading — along with the rest of creation.


Monday, November 20, 2017

The Price of New Sun


We pronounced a benediction yesterday. The death was of the farm variety, not the human. We are no stranger to mortal transitions out here. Chickens die of their own expiration or by the appetites of predators. Squash vines succumb to bugs. Baby mice are snatched from the straw by hungry chickens in spring. Crops green, then fruit, and then rot. Deer carcasses along the roadside become routine.
Tennyson was right that “nature is red in tooth and claw.” Sitting on the front row of death, be it incremental or violent, is something to which we have adjusted.
But somehow this felt different. Yesterday we felled an oak tree. The “we”, of course, I mean in the formal, literary sense. A more experienced friend actually wielded the chain saw. But we were complicit. We had pronounced the condemning verdict that set this execution in motion. We dragged away the pared branches and ultimately the felled trunk. We stood and absorbed the now-gaping void.
That the removal was necessary we had concluded some time ago. The solar array we had installed a few years ago was a priority and the young tree had the misfortune of flourishing into obstruction. Its widening shade was curtailing generation.
But it was a beautiful tree, rising sentinel-proud between the garden and chicken yard, in full and glorious view from the sun room; perfectly shaped, with a long and sturdy future ahead of it. Except it had the misfortune of being rooted in what turned out to be the wrong place.
And so as the pull cord motored the saw to life and the screaming chain bit into the wood, we gave thanks for beauty of the tree, the sap it had run, the leaves it had worn and seasonally dropped, and the shade that had been both blessing and guilt.
Benediction — good and blessing words, indeed.
And then we turned to the suddenly sun-washed solar panels and admonished them that it was now up to them to make this death redemptive. 
Their new life, after all, had come at a sobering price.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Morning of Quieter Days


As darkness succumbs to the inevitability of a new day, red smears the eastern tree line, before igniting into a blazing gold. The bare branches are still on this chilly morning that follows the first serious freeze of autumn — 17-degrees if the forecasters got it right. It was 20 according to the thermometer as I bundled up to release the chickens. The lighter freezes over the past week have been acclimating them to the season ahead, and they have been putting on new feathers. They generate heat in their confined overnight huddling, but there is no way around the fact that it's cold. And several of them are showing their age, not unlike the rest of us. Nonetheless, they troop down the ramps as I open the hatches, commencing the work of their day — hunting and pecking, fluttering and skittering, exploring the newly stacked bales of straw and, with any luck, laying a few fresh eggs. 

That happens less frequently these days, which is usual — I only found two yesterday; 1 the day before. Out of 30 or so birds, a third are aging out of their egg-laying prime, a third are just beginning their careers, and the rest are simply settling into their seasonal dormancy. Daylight is the deficiency these days, not degrees as is often suspected; and while it's possible to add artificial light to eek out a few more eggs, I rather subscribe to the conviction that we all need our winter break. 

In the garden, whatever gleaning was to be done has been accomplished, the canes have been pruned back, the winter rye has been seeded as a cover crop and mulched with the rich bedding scooped out from the coops where fresh shavings have been spread. Walking back toward the house for a fresh cup of coffee I step across browned lawn mottled with tenacious patches of green, reminding me that everything moves at its own pace. Haven't I known youthful octogenarians, after all, right alongside crotchety old 30-year-olds? I mouth a prayer of gratitude for the remnant green and however many days it has remaining as I crunch on toward the door and into the warmth beyond. 

A satisfying quiescence has settled upon Taproot Garden. Even Sam, the rooster, seems more circumspect in his vocal pronouncements. In no time the barn and greenhouse will be frenzied with soil blocking and seeding and sprinkling and nurturing and the great whir of springtime will be upon us. But in truth all that is months away, on the far side of holidays, cold, and this blessed stillness. 

One of the heated waterers is already empty, I noticed, and needs refilling; but I'll wait to tend to that until later in the day when it warms up...to maybe 25. Or maybe not. After all, I love to shiver.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

'Till the Season Comes 'Round Again


It’s calmer now — a slower pace that is as satisfying as its welcomed. This house has been percolating all week. Having gleaned the garden ahead of freezing weather, the garage was full of green — green tomatoes, tomatillos, and green chilies and peppers of multiple varieties. All of which begged the inevitable question: 
“What are we going to do with all this stuff?” 
After all, we have a lot invested in those burgeoning trays, starting with the fabrication of soil blocks last winter, seeding, watering and nurturing in the greenhouse through early spring; transplanting into the garden, irrigating, trellising, weeding and finally picking. There is the cost of seed invested in those trays, plus time and water, muscle and months. We want as little as possible to go to waste.

And so first, the usuals: fermenting various vegetables; dehydrating peppers; salsa verde with the tomatillos and peppers; chow chow with green tomatoes and peppers; salsa and marinara with the riper tomatoes...and peppers.
“But then what?” 
I recalled the dozens of jars of “bread and butter” jalapeños we have purchased and wondered aloud why we couldn’t make some of our own? 
And so we did.

And what about preparing that hallowed southern staple, fried green tomatoes? 
And so we did.

Chopping, assembling, simmering, brining; canning, freezing, pickling. The house has been a humid fog of steam from the water bath canners — both of them. 
“But now what?” 
We read about stowing green tomatoes away in a cool and covered place for shelf ripening. “Hmmm,” we thought with a smile; “a few more weeks — if not months — of BLT’s!” 
And so we did.

But still we had a few trays of this-n-that remaining. “So what shall we do with this?” we wondered aloud.

“I suppose we could, you know, eat it now. You know, fresh.”

Hmmm. That’s an idea.

And so we did.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Winter Won't Be Far Behind


It’s blustering outside. Autumn winds are disarraying empty buckets, flapping loose tarps, dislodging dead branches, and rolling over the glider near the chicken yard. The chickens last night wisely called it an early evening and trooped up the ramps into the relative calm of the coop well before dark. The first freezing temperatures of the season are in the forecast for later in the week, which sets in motion a flurry of farmstead tasks.
The rain barrels must be moved inside, and since we value using this precious resource in the greenhouse next March on the emerging seedlings that means storing several of the barrels — full — in the garage. Yesterday, then, saw a bucket brigade; first emptying a barrel, then setting it up in the garage, then refilling it with buckets filled by emptying another one of the barrels, repeating, until now we have four full barrels stored and ready in the garage, and the remaining four empties stored away in the shed.
I finally gathered up the remnant bales from last winter’s duty around the chicken coops and spread the straw over the newly planted garlic rows as mulch. And, of course, there are still vegetables in the garden — peppers galore, beets and radishes, cabbages and chicories, drying beans and diakons. We made an initial gleaning yesterday that was transformed into salsa, but there is still much to gather and find a way to store. There will be more sauces and salsas, relishes and dehydrations, ferments and freezing — and, of course, eating.
There is a frenetic side to these otherwise quieting days of autumn’s decline, revealing in the rushing just how abundant the summer and succeeding weeks have been.
It is a hurry and a run...
...for which we are amazed...blessed...and grateful.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Saving for a Rainy Day -- This Winter


Summer begins with an anticipatory austerity.  After springtime’s exuberant flush of greens and yellows, the garden rows split and envelop seeds and seedlings, nestling and coaxing them with rich soil and compost and protective mulch.  And then we wait. 

I don’t mean that there is nothing to do.  In a matter of days the weeds appear, requiring a cultivating hand.  There is moisture to consider, and watchfulness against marauding bugs and care for errant vines.  We keep busy; but payoffs are yet remote.  A garden, I have concluded, is the quintessential exercise in delayed gratification.  There are, of course, tantalizing foretastes.  Lettuces come quickly, along with spinach and radishes.  But the bread and butter of the effort – the meat and, well, potatoes of the extended investment – involve waiting.  Indeed, I can get so caught up in the undulating labors of the long season – hypnotized by the weeding, the watering, the trellising – that I allow the first fruits to rot on the stem, unnoticed.

But eventually that all changes.  By this time of year the garden has shaken loose an avalanche of fruit, burying those earlier pessimisms about low and disappointing yields.  The rooster’s morning crow is drowned out daily by the cacophonous cry from the garden, “Pick me!  Pick me!  My arms are breaking from the weight.”

Menus amp up with the harvest.  Every meal represents an agricultural celebration.  But still there is more.  There is the frequent lament over the cucumber newly discovered that, in its hiddenness, has swelled to such dirigible dimensions

as to be beyond the table.  And the suffocating kale begging to be thinned.  And the stew pot full of tomatoes – at least those not reserved for the now-repetitive BLT’s. And still there is more.  No matter how heavily I harvest the okra, tomorrow the bushes are ornamented with more.  And the peppers, clustered and swelling, are just now coloring and waiting there turn.  And still there is more.

And…it is all too much to gather and consume. 

And then we remember the stealthy, inexorable approach of winter, when all thoughts of harvest are distant memories coupled with fanciful anticipation.  Winter, when we harvest out of freezers and canning jars and containers of dehydrated treasures.  If, that is, we have made conscientious use of abundance

It’s an age old problem, this abundance/scarcity alternation; which is why our ancestors learned to make cheese to preserve excess milk, cure meat to extend protein consumption beyond the slaughter, and ferment vegetables to stretch the garden’s goodness beyond summer.  Etc.

And so it is that this weekend we began preserving in earnest.  The dehydrators have long-since been fired up repeatedly in response to the deluge of tomatoes, but recent days have been animated by root vegetables roasting and pickling – beets and turnips and daikons – and kimchi fermenting.  Freezer shelves are groaning under the weight of okra bags, and greens won’t be far behind – the kale and collards and chard – with peppers quickly following.

All because winter is approaching, and we intend to be happily healthy then, too…

…while we browse through the seed catalogues, dreaming of spring.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Taking the Time to Find the Treasure in the Trash

The black walnuts are back.  Last year's sparse crop lulled me away from the memory of prior seasons' black/green carpet.  Several ankle-twisting strolls through the yard in recent days have offered a PhD level refresher course.  The golf ball sized nuisances are everywhere -- at least everywhere I need to be; the driveway, the flower beds, the shortcuts through the lawn.   This morning, then, after the early morning chicken-releasing, potted plant and new seedling watering chores were completed I thought to make a first foray into nuisance clearing.  With an empty five-gallon bucket in one hand and the ingenious long-handled "picker-upper" tool I found at the garden center a few years ago, I went to work under the nearest tree.

 It doesn't take long to fill the wire basket of the tool, nor does it ultimately take long to fill a five-gallon bucket.

This, after clearing about a quarter of the space beneath a single tree.
This, with the nuts still falling.
This, with other tasks still to do today.

Perhaps a new perspective is called for.  Like dandelions, those edible "weeds" that prolifically populate a lawn that turn out to be one of nature's tools for breaking up compacted soil; like purslane, that edible "weed" I learned about earlier this summer, that is one of nature's tools for covering naked soil so as to protect it from erosion, perhaps I should walk around this pile of nuts and find a way to see them as a boon instead of a bother.

I'm not, let me assert, totally clueless about this matter.  Before you shake your head in bemused dismay at this city boy's blindness, let me interject that I am well aware of the culinary -- even nutritional -- value of this dubious harvest.  I know that a prudent steward would happily gather, de-husk, dry and shell this free bounty to good end.  My problem, these last few years of tending this windfall, has not been ignorance; it has been laziness.  Or perhaps more charitably assessed, triage.  "Nutting", as I might name it, takes time -- lots of it with all those multiple steps.  And I've got other, more accessible, things to do in the garden, in the chicken yard, in the orchard.  "Lower hanging fruit" so to speak.

But as we settle more comfortably into the undulations and rhythms of farmstead life, and as we anticipate the eventual harvest of nuts from trees we have actually planted, I'm rethinking this profligate waste.  After all, life is full of things difficult and superficially unattractive whose superior sweetness and beauty deep within gloriously rewards those who contribute the time and effort necessary to access it.  Think "geodes."  Think cultures that seem inscrutable and undesirable.  Think religious convictions that seem inane or bizarre or off-putting.   And think all of those people we have tripped over along the way who don't have initial "curb appeal" but who become life-long, life-supporting friends through the rich character and grace within.

Once we have taken the time to get inside.  And once they have allowed us there.

So I've started reading about how to accomplish these tedious steps for harvesting walnuts -- the erstwhile trash of the farmstead that could well become its quiet autumn treasure.

So I'll need to close for now.  I've got work to do.  Buckets of it.
If, that is, it doesn't drive me nuts.

Friday, September 1, 2017

The Music of Life, and the Power to Play It


I don't know what brought the music to mind. It had been years since I had heard it -- likely 45 of them. “Chris, Chris & Lee" was a vocal group of local popularity emanating from a college in my home town. Perhaps fantasizing about some fictional future when the group would be known as “Chris, Chris, Lee and Tim” my high school freshman self hungrily sat in the audience whenever they performed in the area; an aspirational, albeit delusional musician, I loved the harmonies, the guitar, and the banjo. Indeed, I would for a time take lessons from “Lee” on that latter instrument though I'm afraid I never progressed very far. After college Chris and Chris went on to successful careers in the music business; Lee may have as well though I'm sad to say I have no real idea. I completely lost track of him after that brief season of life.
Whatever had flared the memory of that music in recent weeks, I desperately wanted to hear it again. The only problem was I couldn't.
Long before the days of digital downloads or even CD’s, “Chris, Chris & Lee” self-produced a vinyl LP comprised of originals on the "Ours" side and covers on the “Theirs” side. The album happily found a prized place in my teenage record collection which remains largely intact in boxes stored in our basement, next to the inexpensive portable turntable I found at a store a dozen or so years ago and purchased to eke out a little residual value from all that vinyl. Or to justify keeping the boxes. Somehow, however -- perhaps through a careless move or more likely a dog’s chew -- the power cord got irreparably severed. The turntable was stilled.
The pieces of that power supply have jostled around in the floorboard of my car for weeks, ever since discovering them in a jumbled box of miscellaneous electronics that surfaced in one of those occasional basement reorganization projects that stirred us several months back. Surely I could find a replacement at Radio Shack. Oh, wait -- the Radio Shack store closed who knows how long ago?
And then this prodding compulsion to hear again that music -- those vocals, those guitars and that banjo.
Power is an essential but ephemeral phenomenon. Whether a battery in a cell phone, fuel in a car, a plug in a wall socket or nutrients in the soil we don't much think about it until it's absent -- when the flashlight dims, the car coughs to a standstill, the plants spindle and limply die, the oven stays cold, the spirit grows numb.
Or the turntable doesn't turn.
It's why I'm conscientious about soil health -- the power supply of the garden. It's why I have gas cans in the barn and fresh batteries in the drawer. It's why we installed solar panels for the house. It's why I plug in my phone every night. It's why I read. It's why, after 20 years of marriage, we still go on dates. Otherwise, the things we value, the tools on which we've come to depend, fall silent or still.
My aural craving has a happy ending. The internet, I'm continually experiencing, is amazing thing; and after a brief search I located and ordered a replacement power supply for the turntable. It arrived yesterday in the mail, prompting a subsequent, mercifully brief search through those afore-mentioned boxes. The album was found, the vinyl platter extracted, the needle was dropped, and music spilled forth...
The harmonies, the guitars, the banjo.
And I smiled -- an indulged and satisfied smile 45 years in the making.
And humming, I walked away wondering what else around and within is winding down, depleting or dimming that I need to plug in, fertilize, or nourish.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Praying as the Spigot Turns to Drip


It’s muggy this afternoon, but under the circumstances even that is welcome.  It rained a bit today, briefly interrupting our deepening drought. August has thus far kindly mitigated the thirst with cooler temperatures since July's withering heat, but the earth cracks remain. I compensate in the garden with irrigation – the drip tapes delivering relief directly to the gasping roots – but it’s an imperfect solution. Expensive in the short term, in the long view it is sure to be less and less sustainable as water becomes increasingly precious. 

While it was a nagging concern over declining energy that prodded our determination to join the circle of those who remember how to grow food on different, simpler terms – disentangled from a reliance on the chemicals and combustibles derived from fossil fuels – concern for water is likely to become the more pressing urgency. “Capital” that we routinely treat as “profit” as one economist characterizes our use of such resources.. 

It’s hard to say if we have already entered the reality that ethno-botanist Gary Nabhan anticipates in his book, “Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land – Lessons from Desert Farmers on Adapting to Climate Uncertainty”, but it is hard to ignore the increasing weirdness of weather patterns. In Iowa, where a reputation for bitterly cold and snowy winters was once well deserved, that season between autumn and spring is harder and harder to predict or characterize. Recent years have seen us warmer and drier, with only brief and episodic thermal plunges. And “summer”, any more, equally defies definition. It rains, but only whimsically - a toying drizzle one day; a brutalizing downpour several weeks later. And nothing for days on end.

Don Henley, co-founder of “The Eagles”, names it rightly when he sings:

“We hardly had a winter
Had about a week of spring
Crops are burned-up in the fields
There’s a blanket of dust on everything
The weatherman is sayin’
That there ain’t no change in sight
Lord, I’ve never been a prayin’ man
But I’m sayin’ one tonight
I’m prayin’ for rain
I’m prayin’ for rain
Lord, I ain’t never asked for much
And I don’t mean to complain
I’m prayin’ for rain.”

But it’s his next verse that may be the most prescient:

“I ain’t no wise man
But I’m no fool
I believe that Mother Nature
Has taken us to school
Maybe we just took too much
Or put too little back
It isn’t knowledge
It’s humility we lack.”

Indeed. Ours is not a culture that puts much stock in humility. We beat our scientific chests and reassure ourselves that we will find yet another means for conquering "Mother Nature."  Meanwhile, the leaves curl and the soil first cracks and then blows away. 

But it rained today, at least briefly. I can leave the hydrant in the “off” position for now. And the forecast includes a continuing chance tomorrow. If it comes I’ll not take it for granted. The rain barrels are running low; and the new plant babies, though more quietly than their human counterparts, cry from thirst.

“Lord, I ain’t never asked for much
And I don’t mean to complain
I’m prayin’ for rain.”

Monday, August 7, 2017

Something New to Chew On

"Never be so focused on what you're looking for that you overlook the thing you actually find."
 -----Ann Patchett
 I've never noticed it before.  If it has plagued our garden in previous years I didn't see it -- or I was consumed with different, more urgent concerns.  We've been transitioning our system this growing season, resulting in the movement of a lot of dirt and, very likely, weed seeds which could account for the emergence.  One of these new sections has been particularly afflicted.  I can run the wheel hoe through the walking spaces and between the plants one day, clearing the overgrowth, and by morning the ground is covered again as if I had been absent a week.  Blast this low-growing, oddly attractive, curiously prolific succulent.

Yesterday an acquaintance who operates a certified organic vegetable farm came over to perform my annual inspection to renew my Certified Naturally Grown designation for garden and chickens.  Passing through the garden gate I pointed out this spidery green nemesis, muttered a few profanities by way of description, and asked if he had any idea what it is.  His lips curling into a knowing, sympathetic smile, he uttered a single word:  "purslane."

I had heard of purslane, and been curious about it, but obviously had no idea what it was.  The internet offers plenty of pictures, of course, but scale is difficult for me to assess in such photos, and I'm left never really sure of what I'm looking for.  The mystery, however, is now solved.  My inspector friend went on to tell me that most other cultures value the plant's culinary and nutritional assets.  We, on the other hand, cavalierly label it a weed and hoe it away.  Together we plucked some leaves and sampled some of this aspirational supper.  "Not bad," I thought as I considered the possibilities.

Later, having chewed a few more leaves, we researched for more understanding.  Nature, I am continually learning, abhors bare ground.  Bare ground rapidly loses moisture.  Bare ground blows away.  So it is that Nature finds ways to cover it.  Quickly.  Enter:  purslane.   But Nature isn't the plant's only admirer.  Purslane, it turns out, is a wonder inside the home as well.  Indeed enjoyed around the world, some believe the plant originated in Persia and India.  Italians have have included it in their favorite recipes since the 1200's.  Sporting higher levels of Omega-3 fatty acids than many fish oils, impressive levels of fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, B-family vitamins, iron, magnesium, potassium, calcium, copper, anti-oxidents and carotenoids, this pesky yet delicious little weed can reduce "bad" cholesterol, reduce cardiovascular disease, assist in weight loss, prevent certain cancers, boost vision, strengthen the immune system, build strong bones and improve circulation.  Where has this stuff been all my life?

In her book, The Wild Wisdom of Weeds, Katrina Blair delivers kitchen recipes for Purslane Sauerkraut, Walnut Purslane Coleslaw, Purslane Peach Pie, Purslane Lime Sorbet and Purslane Gazpacho among others.  Hygienically, she walks readers through the steps to Purslane Lemon Elixer, Purslane Shampoo and Purslane Lotion.

I'll have to admit that, while I'm becoming more and more adventurous in the kitchen, I'm skeptical as to how many of those are going to show up in our repertoire.  Nonetheless, I'm excited to try something new -- ancient, that is, but new.  Happy, as well, to approach my weeding with a kinder, more benevolent view.

It couldn't hurt to approach a few other things in my world with those clearer, more informed eyes as well -- wondering what other "purslanes" might be out there in the neighborhood, in the communities through which I pass, in the various immigrant communities to which we all belong; things and people who look, for all the world, like weeds but could just save our lives.

It's something to chew on.

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Assertive Bloom of Grace


A rogue cherry tomato plant is sporting fruit in the midst of the beets.  Another is peaking through the wildflower bed that replaced the compost pile.  Last year a zucchini plant surprised us, flourishing in that very pile.

And then there are the sunflowers.

We planted several sunflower seeds around the property this spring, but so far as I can assess nothing has come from them.  Perhaps they lacked moisture when it was most critical.  Or perhaps they were crowded and smothered by competing growth.  I certainly could have been more attentive to their needs, cultivating and coddling and coaxing.   All I can say with certainty is that those chosen locations are silent and void. 

But we have sunflowers.  Towering up between the cabbages and tomatoes are a handful of volunteers that took it upon themselves to grow where their last-season ancestors dropped their seeds.  Never mind the intervening tiller and hoe; never mind the crowding, otherwise-assigned real estate of the garden, it was quite apparently in their interest to grow.  And now, as July dissolves into August, they tower over the garden rows as sentinel observers – whether with welcome or warning I cannot say. 

A more fastidious gardener would have yanked them long ago as intrusions in the orderliness of the plantings.  But I rather like them there – random acts of nature’s kindness – contributing beauty, to be sure, and whimsical novelty; but also because of their silent but stately reminder that I am not finally in control of this soil.  There are underworkings of which I am completely unaware – silent and minuscule machinations beneath the surface that, yes, sometimes produce weeds and other invasives against which I will wage horticultural battle; but also, from time to time, and in always surprising places, the very towering blossom of…

…grace.

Though I haven’t adequately rehearsed the discipline, this garden experience prompts me to survey the corners and rows of the other parts of my life; suspecting the very real likelihood that unexpected graces could well be showing their faces there, too – among the grocery store aisles or the freeway lanes or the pedestrian steps of the sidewalk…

…nudging and elbowing their way into bloom; parading their colors to any with the eyes to see; preparing, in the coming weeks, to scatter their seeds for yet future surprises; next year’s garden plan be damned.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Neglected Woods Where God Surely Dwells


”When God practices Shabbat, God takes complete delight in what is made. Delight marks the moment when we find whatever is in our presence so lovely and so good that there is no other place we want to be. All we want to do is soak it up, be fully present to it and cherish the goodness of the world God has made.”
------Norman Wirzba, in Making Peace with the Land
The back half of our property is blanketed in woods. The view of it from across the prairie presents tall trees against the horizon, but the few times we have ventured into the thicket we have encountered mostly scrub. A narrow creek interestingly cuts through it, but between the brush and near constant muddiness, reaching its embankment isn't easy. It would take a bulldozer to make much use of it -- an undertaking and expense for which we haven't identified much purpose. The deer take delight in its shelter -- and no doubt other creatures -- but we have happily confined ourselves to the cleared and more accessible acres nearer at hand. Apart from its recent tax designation as “timber reserve” which will save us a few dollars, that portion of the land to which we hold title has been relatively useless. Unfamiliar.  Slightly mysterious, and prickly.  As far as we have been concerned, worthless.

This morning in church we heard again the story of the Hebrew patriarch Jacob’s flight from his angry brother, the dream-filled night that occurred along the way with its angel-trafficked ladder, and the protagonist's morning realization that, “surely the Lord is in this place; and I didn't know it” (Genesis 28:19).

Whatever else Jacob might have been acknowledging, there is the implied observational confession that the problem before had not been with the “place”, but with his own ignorance. I don't understand why we despise what we do not know or understand, but that seems to be our human default. Neither can I comprehend why the fearful prejudices born of that ignorance are only incrementally dismantled. “I’ve come to like and respect you, but you aren't like the rest of your kind.” It's an odd compartmentalization, and sadly wasteful of each other.

Each other, and more.  He probably didn't intend it, but the preacher got me thinking, among other things, about those wooded acres and my base assessment of them; and how Jacob’s problem is actually my own. The deficiency isn't with that “place”, but with my ignorance of it. Against my noblest intentions I’ve fallen into the trap of assessing value according to utility -- what it's good for -- rather than what it simply is: one precious part, along with me, of this wondrously divine creation.

…A creation that will surely heave an epic sigh of relief when we finally comprehend how far it is above our pay grade to name or assess where God might be. 

“Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it.” 

This place.  
These people.  
These moments.

It all gives me the urge to step into my boots and hike in amongst those trees and along that creek -- to get better acquainted with it and the God who is surely full back there, treasuring every square inch of it, never mind the mud, the prickly branches, or the muggy heat.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Inspiration and Challenge of Vacant Rows

I’ve always been fascinated by second acts – people who intentionally or serendipitously reinvented themselves for a subsequent chapter of their life.  I think of people like Ina Garten who was working as a nuclear budget analyst in the White House when she bought a small food store in Westhampton Beach, NY called “The Barefoot Contessa” – the moniker by which she has ever since been known through her television cooking shows and string of published cookbooks.

I think of JK Rowling who started out adulthood as a researcher, later taught English as a second language in Portugal, eventually becoming a single mom on welfare when she began to write stories of a young wizard orphan boy named Harry Potter.

There are politicians, like John Glenn who first orbited the earth as an astronaut and later walked the halls of the Senate chambers. Like Elizabeth Warren who was an elementary school teacher before she went to law school, practiced law out of her home, and after a few more turns was elected to the United States Senate.  And like Ronald Reagan who was a radio sports broadcaster before becoming a film actor and ultimately President of the United States.

There are business types, like Jeff Bezos who had a computer science career on Wall Street before launching Amazon.

There are star athletes who reinvent themselves, like OJ Simpson…. OK, maybe he’s not the best example.

And there are ordinary types like Clara Peller who was a manicurist in Chicago when she was hired as a temporary manicurist for a television commercial.  One thing led to another and, after starring in a Wendy’s Hamburger commercial asking the famous question, “Where’s the beef?”, went on to enjoy a second career as a character actor.

Second acts.  Explosive second careers.  Loving second marriages.  “Re-wirements”, as a friend of mine once put it, instead of “retirements”.  Putting oneself first to one use and then another.  Less, "and finally;" more, "and then."  Perhaps something like a preacher becoming a farmer.

Perhaps something like the garlic rows in the garden.  Planted last October in a 12-row section in one zone of the garden and an 8-row “spillover” in another zone of the garden, we harvested the mature bulbs this week.  It’s a satisfying feeling, after all these months, to finally dig and pull and bundle all those aromatically bulbous stalks onto the empty shelves of the greenhouse to cure for storage.  But it leaves a big vacancy in the garden – a mere half-way through the season.

We could, of course, start to coast.  We could simply retire those sections until next year.  After all, there is plenty growing in the other reaches of the garden.  We have more than enough to do with what remains – weeding and watering, watching for bugs or diseases, gathering into the kitchen a thing or two as they ripen.  And we have other interests and projects to occupy our time and imaginations.  But leaving those spaces fallow seems like missed opportunity.  There is still time before late autumn frosts.  There is yet fertility in the soil.  There are storage crops we would later appreciate.  I ponder the question of stewardship and how we responsibly use ourselves and our resources.

And I’m haunted by the sound of Clara Peller’s voice, asking over the image of that vast and empty bun, “where’s the beef?”; knowing that ultimately she’s not talking about hamburgers at all.

And so we planted seeds in those vacant rows – beets and carrots, turnips and parsnips, fall cauliflower – and already salivate with the anticipation of a subsequent harvest.

A second act.

And wonder about seeds and empty rows of other and different and more significant sorts.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Carrots and Marrow and Tasting the Deliberate Life

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.  ...I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience..."
                                ----Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Very shortly after moving to this farmstead we named it, for reasons as inscrutable then as now, "Taproot Garden."  I don't know from where the name came.  I wasn't even aware of the need to select a name.  When one brings home a dog, a name becomes a pressing imperative; but never before had I considered a name for a new home.  Nevertheless, the boxes were scarcely unpacked and the pictures hung on the walls before the name had emerged, we had commissioned a graphic designer to create a logo, and not too long after taking possession of the finished art that we contracted with a sign maker for the entrance.  The name, it seemed, had chosen us.

In some small way like Thoreau before us, we had gone to the land because we, too, wished to live deliberately and deeply.  I don't think we anticipated a lot of marrow sucking, but we were indeed intent on drawing from the wisdom of life's core.  If a taproot reaches down into the depths of the soil to more solidly anchor whatever stems and leafs and fruits above, and to gather richer, more remote nutrition, then a taproot was precisely what we were after.  Our move felt and continues to feel like one that brings the marrow of life closer to hand.

This is not to suggest that my prior vocational endeavor was artificial or fruitless.  I am forever grateful for the calling, for the evocative mentors who helped discern it with me, for the grandeur of its purpose and imagination, and for the people into whose proximity it drew me.  But something about the execution of it always chaffed -- the machinations, the protocols, the institutional expectations and obligations both implied and stated.  Like the teeth of transmission gears that never quite meshed, the operational and the vocational aspects of the work never quite found in me their rhythm. 

This, of course, says far more about me than about the work.  I have no real idea how the work should be done; I only know how I did it.  To be sure, there were peers and role models that I watched and variously celebrated and derided.  But I don't truly know what it was like for them.  A wise teacher once noted that we are always comparing the "outside" of others with the "inside" of ourselves, and it's never a fair or accurate comparison. 

All that, plus a certain inexorability about it.  I recall a comment my brother made after returning with his family from the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.  Describing the incredible density of the crowd he observed that you could almost pick up your feet and the crowd would carry you where it wanted you to go.  My prior work had an element of that.  For all its flexibility, it had a way of carrying me along in the directions it wanted me to go, and always swept along I never quite felt capable of reconnecting with the pavement and initiating an alternative direction of my own within it.

Stepping, then, outside of it, we settled on the land....deliberately...to "front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach."  I wouldn't assert that it is the only way to do it -- resettling onto a piece of land -- but I suspect it's harder the further away from it we move. 

Once grounded and home, we began to send down the taproot that this stretch of soil invited.

And we have been anchoring and learning.  This morning I weeded a few garden rows, nestled into the soil a few dozen transplants from the greenhouse, harvested several more cucumbers, a pepper, along with the first of the garlic and the squash.  Later this afternoon I'll gather a dozen or so eggs.   

And pull some carrots -- taproots. Then, with every sweet and crunching bite I will savor the earthy richness of the minerals and micro-nutrients drawn up from the deep, and consider how the same has been happening in me. 

And gratefully resolve to continue Thoreau's deliberate deeper growth and experiential learning...

...tasting the marrow as I come to it.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Breathtaking Chorus of Our Respective Voices

"The universe would be incomplete without man; but it would also be incomplete without the smallest transmicroscopic creature that dwells beyond our conceitful eyes and knowledge."
----John Muir
 By this time 6 years ago Lori and I had abandoned a quixotic quest for one rural property and, on the rebound, visited two others.  We felt utterly no connection with one of those, but the other one lingered in our souls like a song you can't get out of your head.  Still, we retreated; hesitant to jump at one pretty place just because we had been denied another.  We thought about other things.  We talked about the weather.  Eventually we called the realtor and initiated a second look which led to an offer which led to a counter-offer and a counter to the counter...and signatures on a purchase agreement.  Two months later we were arranging furniture, unpacking boxes, and nervously, almost wordlessly wondering what in the world we had done.  The ten rural acres that, in the coming months, would be named Taproot Garden was ours. 

At least the legal documents on file at the courthouse attest to that premise. 

But the very first time we walked around the property after making it our home we couldn't shake the recognition that that description was more technical than real.  It was an insight only deepened during the subsequent winter when, with little else to do, I picked up the property's abstract and read the story of this land.  Acquired in the 1800's by the U.S. Government through a treaty with the resident Native Americans,  this parcel has variously welcomed and endured numerous settlers -- "owners" -- who have come and gone, bought and sold, cleared and planted.  Whatever we do while settled here, and however long we stay, our fingerprints will quickly dissolve into the smear of those left here previously amidst the land's ongoing story.

It's not that our presence here is immaterial.  We have cut trees; we have planted others.  We have planted prairie grasses and wildflower seeds.  We have plowed ground.  But it's hard to assert much of a case for primacy.  Regardless of how many thistles we dig out, countless others find their way up and out of the soil in spite of us.  Regardless of how much we clear away the growth around the fruit trees, by the time we turn our backs to walk back into the house its re-encroachment is already under way. 

Who, then, is the most significant player on this precious parcel of ground?  Who really "owns" this land?  Is it us with our deeds and abstracts and power saws and earth augers and tillers and hoes and irrigation systems?  Is it the deer who routinely traverse the property indifferent to our presence?  Is it the dandelions loosening the packed soil? Is it the bees hived just before the treeline who pollinate the flowers and the trees?  Is it the earthworms beneath the surface or the trees standing watch around the edges?  Is it the birds who overfly, or the garden snakes who do their part? 

Or is the very question, as Muir hints in the opening quotation, an absurdity in its assumption of any hierarchy at all?  Is it arrogance or is it insecurity  -- or an even more destructive ignorance -- that leads humans, completely alone among all these other players and the literally billions of others, to posit such a dwarfing stupidity as superiority? 

I only know this:  when I see the squash vine blackened and withered, despite my most valiant efforts, by a squash bug; or when I see a ripening plum on a branch where only months ago was but a naked branch; or when I pinch a young cucumber off the vine after I had simply dug a hole and dropped a seed...

...I can do little more than note the swelling gratitude that overtakes me for the privilege of participating, in these few tiny ways, in the immense wonder of it all.  Along with the bees and the worms and the butterflies and blossoms; with the seeds and the fruits and the sun and the rain; with the innumerable microscopic factors and fungi at once inhabiting and nourishing the soil, we make a pretty good chorus.  All of us -- each of us -- simply singing our part.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Fireworks-- and Hope -- in a Jar


Walking back toward the house after securing the chickens for the night, the young darkness is alive – electrified with the twinkling of fireflies.  It happens every night this time of year – especially dramatic in the tall rough grass around the front trees, as if the stars in the sky had condescended to kneel down to human scale affording us earth-bound ones a better view.  Those with a quick hand and a childlike sense of wonder can capture one and contain the lightening in a jar, but either because I've grown older or slower (I pray it's merely the latter) I content myself with watching; marveling at the magic just outside our door.

I suppose there are fireflies in the city, but I rarely saw them in all of our years there.   Perhaps it was that all the street lights and porch lights and headlights around camouflaged them hiding in plain sight.  Or perhaps I was too busy to pay them any mind – or once parked inside and the garage door motored down behind me I never reemerged until morning.  We miss things, I know, wherever we are.  Out here in the rural recesses -- absent cable, satellite TV, pavement and street lights -- I'm sure we miss plenty. 

But not the fireflies. Fireflies we see.  And it's something close to magic.

After several decades of illegality, and amidst great controversy, the Governor signed a bill this spring, passed by the legislature, legalizing the sale of fireworks in Iowa.  Curiously, the new law allows municipalities to ban the USE of such explosives, but not their SALE; making me wonder whose interests the new law is intended to serve.  But I digress.  The result of it all will almost surely be that the afternoons this 4th of July weekend will be crackling with strings of Black Cats reaching the ends of their fuses, and the nights with fizzing sparklers and the bursts of Roman candles and bottle rockets.

It seems to me that it would have been a lot simpler – and cheaper and quieter – to just encourage everyone to drive down a country road, park near a field, turn off the headlights, and watch nature’s own fireworks display. 

And I do encourage it.  You might find yourself spontaneously humming softly about “rockets red glare” and “bombs bursting in air.”

You might even find yourself trying to catch one in a jar…

…giggling, pretending, if only for the evening, that we are all children. 

But even if only for the evening, who knows where it could lead?

Just imagine.